This specially commissioned essay is reproduced from The Art of a Nation Exhibition Catalogue. Purchase the catalogue online now. 


By Lewis McNaught, Director, Mall Galleries

In recent years, we have had too few opportunities in this country to explore and evaluate the merits of Irish Art. Apart from a few commercial galleries that provide exhibition space for living, Irish-born painters, sculptors and photographers, it may surprise you to learn there has been no wide-ranging survey or other single exhibition in London providing an historical dimension to Irish Art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for more than 30 years.    

In 1980 three important touring exhibitions visited London as part of A Sense of Ireland, the London Festival of Irish Arts, mounted by The Arts Councils in Ireland. Each gave a different, personal perspective on Irish Art in the Seventies. One of these, The Delighted Eye, was curated by Frances Ruane, who became Art Advisor to the Allied Irish Banks Collection in 1980 and who has written about the formation of their Collection for this catalogue. Strongholds (1991) and Elective Affinities (1993), both at Tate Gallery Liverpool, concentrated on new art from Ireland; representative Irish works in the permanent collections of Tate, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are few in number, although Sir William Orpen’s wartime paintings are well represented in London’s Imperial War Museum. On the whole, London and the UK have been starved of exposure to great Irish Art.      

Sean Keating, On the Run, War of Independence

We are confident this selection will introduce you to works of enduring quality and may encourage you to cross the waters to discover more.

This is one of the reasons why Mall Galleries is proud to stage this selection of important Irish works collected by Allied Irish Banks plc. Drawn from a portfolio comprising more than 3,000 paintings, photographs and sculptures, astutely collected since the 1980s, the collection is surely one of the most important representative collections of Modern Irish Art, certainly broader in its historical range and quality than other corporate collections formed in Ireland. Tours of the works within the Republic are continuous and some of the more significant works are on permanent view at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. But The Art of a Nation is the first time these works have left the shores of Ireland. This exhibition is therefore the first opportunity for London gallery visitors to discover the diversity and character of works produced by artists in the Republic of Ireland from c1900 to the present day.    

But there is a further reason for staging this exhibition at Mall Galleries, home to the Federation of British Artists. Each year, these Galleries play host to the annual exhibitions of eight of the UK’s leading art societies. Several of the artists represented in The Art of a Nation were members or exhibited with these societies that for over fifty years have held their annual exhibitions at Mall Galleries. For example, Aloysius O’Kelly exhibited with the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA), the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (RI) and the Royal Institute of Oil Painters (ROI); Roderic O’Conor, William Leech, Thomas Carr and Sir William Orpen all exhibited with the New English Art Club (NEAC); Letitia Hamilton and F E McWilliam both exhibited with the RBA, and Yeats with the ROI. Sir John Lavery was a member of the NEAC and showed an impressive 140 works with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RP).    

Letitia Hamilton, Clew Bay

As well as exhibition opportunities, the London art world has provided Irish artists with valued support and a livelihood. This vital connection has continued into recent times with William Crozier and Hughie O’Donoghue RA both playing leading roles in the British art scene; Willie Doherty and Sean Scully have both been shortlisted twice for the Turner Prize. All these artists now enjoy a worldwide reputation and feature in this exhibition with important works.   The selection of works made by the exhibition’s curators, Anthony Lester and Nicholas Usherwood, will provide you with just a small insight into the range and quality of works in the AIB Collection. We are confident this selection will introduce you to works of enduring quality and may encourage you to cross the waters to discover more.

Art of a Nation opens 13 May to 31 May

Buy the Exhibition Catalogue online now